The idea that people who are naturally happy tend to live longer than less positive types might seem either obvious or offensive, depending on your disposition. On one hand, for those who are optimistic, it seems obvious that people who are able to take everything life throws at them in stride might be more resilient. But then again, if you struggle with feeling happy in your own life, this concept could feel insulting.
The truth is, the connection between life expectancy and happiness is complicated. Just because you get sick doesn’t mean you aren’t a positive person. But more than one scientific study has identified a link. For example, a recent study published in the journal Age and Ageing looked at data from a group of 4,478 Singaporeans aged 60 years and older and found that those who self-reported higher levels of happiness were 19 percent less likely to die of any cause than less happy people. It seems that no matter how old you are, happiness makes a difference in your health. But why? And what does happiness even really mean? We asked psychologists and other experts to take on these big questions.
WHY IS HAPPINESS GOOD FOR OUR HEALTH?
There’s not a clear answer for this, but doctors have theories. Dr. Prakash Masand, MD, psychiatrist and co-founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence in North Carolina, explains, “Several studies have shown the connection between happiness and a healthy heart, lower blood pressure, less stress, and just better overall health. Others show that a person who is generally happier also experiences fewer aches and body pain. Being happy has been shown to boost the immune system and to decrease the amount of cortisol the body produces — a hormone that is released in response to stress. Too much cortisol wreaks havoc on the body, and causes sleep problems, weight issues, heart disease, and high blood pressure.” So increasing happiness means decreasing not only emotional stress but also the physical toll it can take.
Emily Mendez, MS, EdS, a mental health writer with a degree in counseling, offers another explanation. “People who are happy tend to take better care of themselves. They might go to the doctor more often, follow through on taking medications, and do other things that help them stay in good health,” she says. “People who are depressed, for instance, often don’t even have the energy to get out of bed in the morning, so doing things like going to doctor’s appointments can seem almost impossible. If a person is not going to the doctor and not getting things checked out, then they are more likely to suffer poor health.” Both of these explanations make the case that paying attention to your mental health is just as important as your physical health.
WHAT DOES HAPPINESS ACTUALLY MEAN?
That’s a big question, but science is taking it on. “Positive psychology defines happiness as a state of mind characterized by contentment, love, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy,” says Dr. Danielle Forshee, PsyD, New Jersey-based psychologist and licensed social worker. “Happiness is being aware not only of positive thoughts but also the fact that you are the cause of those events and that you can create them, control their occurrence, and play a significant role in the good things that happen to you.” Taking a broad view, happiness is not just those feelings we get when good things happen to us; it’s also feeling like we have agency in our own lives and that we have the ability to make those things happen for ourselves.
That’s all well and good, but how do we cope when bad things inevitably happen that are outside our control? Florida-based clinical psychologist Dr. Dara Bushman, PsyD, says that it’s about trying to find something that can make us happy, even when our life at the time isn’t going so well. “One can live through unpleasant moments and still experience happiness,” she reassures us. “Surviving hard times is about getting perspective, by focusing our gratitude on what we do have, as opposed to what we do not have. Identifying components of happiness in increments — like traits in people you enjoy, things you like to do, moments that fuel your soul — creates more manageable ways to maintain happiness.” Instead of feeling like you either have to be entirely happy or entirely sad, concentrate your energy on looking for the positive things, however small, regardless of your circumstances. Of course, that’s often easier said than done. Forshee says that this is when we rely on positive people around us for support. Which brings us to…
WHAT’S THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY TO ACHIEVE HAPPINESS?
Scientists have been looking into that as well and they might have an answer. Elizabeth Su, life coach and mindfulness expert in California, says, “There is a fascinating Harvard study (the longest longitudinal study on happiness) that proves that people who invest in their relationships live longer and happier lives.” For the Harvard Study of Adult Development, researchers started following a group of 268 graduates from the college’s classes of 1939-44 in 1938. Later, in the 1970s, they added 456 men from inner-city Boston to the project. The purpose was to examine the connection between happiness and health.
“The study shows that although people tend to rank money and fame as the most important contributors to a good life, having meaningful relationships is in fact the most significant,” explains Su. They found that beyond social class or genetics, or even cholesterol levels, the number one indicator of someone’s ability to ward off ill health was their positive relationships with others. “There are many things that contribute to a happy life, but this study suggests that spending time with your loved ones is not only fun, but good for your health,” Su says. We can find happiness in many things big and small, from a dream vacation to a pumpkin spice latte. But it seems that the best way to make us truly happy — and healthy — is through strong relationships with those people who make a long life worth living.
Who makes your life happier? Let us know @BritandCo.